Selective Perception


Tim Couch was the quarterback taken first overall in the 1999 NFL Draft. Couch has a baby’s blue eyes and a chin that tapers down to a point like a guitar pick. As a college sophomore, Couch had turned what had been a pathetic Wildcats offense into the leading unit in the nation, setting several new school records along the way. In 1998, he was a Heisman finalist and named SEC Player of the Year. Couch had the prototypical measurables as well, standing 6’4 and weighing 225 lbs. One NFL scout, Don Shonka, described Couch’s accuracy like this: “They used to put five garbage cans on the field and Couch would stand there and throw and just drop the ball into every one.” Couch never lived up to his billing in the pros. After just five years in the league, appearing in 62 games, Couch was cut by the Browns and didn’t play again. Being able to drop the ball into garbage cans, as impressive as that is, does precious little to predict how well you can throw a ball to a sprinting receiver.

It is notoriously difficult to identify what college players will turn into successful professional players. When it comes to quarterbacks, this statement is especially true. Tim Couch hardly stands alone amongst promising – record-setting, even – collegians who would be called “busts.” There’s Joey Harrington, sarcastically called “Joey Blue-Skies” by the Detroit press for his predictably optimistic post-game interviews. There’s Akili Smith, who was drafted 3rd overall by the Bengals and would complete less than half of his passes as a pro. 2007’s number one overall pick was Jamarcus Russell, whose contract with Oakland guaranteed him $31.5 million. The Raiders’ ROI was 15 lost fumbles. Russell’s competition for biggest draft bust of all time was the Charger’s Ryan Leaf, whose rookie season featured 2 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions. Leaf is currently in prison for felony burglary.

Imagine you are asked to look at five college quarterbacks and asked the question, “Which one of these is most likely to be a good NFL quarterback?” How would you approach this problem? You might sort them by their physical characteristics, such as height, weight, hand size, or arm length. You could measure how far they could throw the ball, and how accurate those throws were, and how fast they can run. You might want to test their peripheral vision, and their intelligence. You would probably give some weight to their college statistics and what type of program they played in. You could ask their teammates what kind of work ethic each player displayed, or how much passion they have. This is the approach NFL teams take. They spend millions of dollars and countless hours doing exactly these things. And despite having every metric and measurement imaginable, they are little better than casual fans at predicting who will be succeed.

This is the scouting problem: there are certain roles where almost nothing you learn about a candidate beforehand can predict how well they’ll perform. But you don’t need to be an NFL scout to face it. The scouting problem shows up when schools are hiring teachers or firms are hiring financial advisers. Finding the right person can be an enormously complicated question with no clear answer.


Just after midnight on the morning of November 28th, 1976, Officer Robert Wood pulled over a car that was driving with its headlights out. When he approached the car, Wood was shot and killed. (In a tragic side note, bulletproof vests were apparently not yet standard issue equipment for the Dallas Police Department. Wood’s wife had purchased one for him and was giving it to him as a Christmas present.) A month passed before police got a lead in the case: a sixteen-year old kid named David Harris had been bragging to his friends that he killed a cop. After interviewing Harris, the police found 1) the vehicle driven by the suspect had been stolen from Harris’ neighbor; 2) ballistics from the gun used to kill Officer Wood matched the gun Harris had stolen from his father, a .22 revolver; 3) this gun was still in Harris’ possession; 4) Harris matched the description provided by Wood’s partner; and, 5) between the murder and the interview, Harris had been arrested for holding up a convenience store. Not surprisingly, Harris denied shooting Officer Wood.

What is surprising, however, is the fact that the investigating officers believed him. Based only on Harris’ testimony, police arrested an Ohio man named Randall Adams. Adams had met Harris the day before the shooting, when Harris offered him a ride. The two spent much of the day together, drinking and smoking marijuana. Adams claims he was back at his motel at the time of the shooting. Bill James, author of Popular Crime, put it this way. “It was Harris who had shot the cop. In retrospect, there is every reason why the police should have known this. Adams, 28 years old at the time, had never been in any trouble. Harris had been involved in criminal activity all his life…. It is anyone’s guess why the police and prosecutors chose to believe the wrong man.” But believe them they did. Maybe it was, as James puts it, because “Harris was a personable young man.” Maybe it was because the prosecutor wanted to send someone to the electric chair for killing a cop, and thus chose to charge the adult rather than the minor.

We expect the police to be fundamentally incapable of making this kind of error. They should be objective, we might say. They should focus on the facts. But step back a moment and place yourself in the detective’s shoes. A cop was murdered, shot through the heart. Maybe you knew him and he was in your regular poker game. Or maybe he was from a different precinct – Dallas is not a small town – but just the notion of an officer being gunned down would likely be enough to unsettle your focus a little bit. On the one hand, you have the likable, gregarious kid who’s telling you it wasn’t him …and who would be facing a short prison sentence at most. On the other hand, you have an outsider. Someone old enough to pay with his life. So what if the evidence all points to the other guy? With a little distance and the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how one could get tunnel vision.


How can we predict who will make a good spouse? In a perverse sort of way, marriage is the combination of both of these problems. On the one hand, we have a scouting problem. When we are dating someone – the college athletics of relationships – we accumulate all kinds of data, whether these are mere impressions or things we can put into quantifiable terms. The problem isn’t having enough information: we have too much information. The problem is knowing where to place our focus. We can’t even say which factors best predict success in the NFL; how are we supposed to know what characteristics are most important to look for in a spouse? On the other hand, we can get so lost in the emotional thicket of a romance that it’s easy to develop romantic tunnel vision. Obvious signs like, say, drug use, or prior criminal behavior, or patterns of aggression get ignored because he’s just oh-so-likable and gregarious. Even when the red flags aren’t quite so glaring, we might overlook a lack of compatibility because of a strong physical attraction; conversely, we might fail to notice deep compatibility when that attraction is less intense.

John Gottman is a psychologist who is best known for his ability to predict divorces: if you get a couple to discuss a contentious aspect of their relationship in front of Gottman for just five minutes, he can tell you with 91% accuracy whether or not they will be divorced within ten years. It’s fair to say that Gottman has some understanding of how relationships work. One thing he likes to talk about is active listening. Many marriage counselors recommend couples develop better active listening skills: feed back to your spouse what she’s saying to make it clear you understand and empathize. To Gottman, this is not a particularly useful habit. “Let’s say my wife is really angry with me because I repeatedly haven’t balanced the checkbook and the checks bounce. What would it accomplish if I say: ‘I hear what you’re saying, you’re really angry with me, and I can understand why you’re angry with me because I’m not balancing the checkbook.’ That’s not going to make her feel any better, I still haven’t balanced the damned checkbook!”

In Gottman’s eyes, real empathy is not found in an effective summary of the other person’s point of view. “Real empathy comes from going: ‘You know, I understand how upset you are. It really hurts me that I’m messing up this way, and I’ve got take some action.’ Real empathy comes from feeling your partner’s pain in a real way, and then doing something about it.” In a way, active listening is like being able to throw a football into a garbage can forty yards down the field: showing you can parrot a thought doesn’t show you’re capable of empathy. Gottman describes what he calls “relationship masters” as the sort of people who look at the problems in their relationship and develop a collaborative approach. “We’ve got this problem. Let’s take a look at it, let’s kick it around. How do you see it? I see it this way, and we kick it around,” he says. “All of a sudden I can have empathy for your position because you’re telling me what you contribute to the problem.”

Of course, there’s more to the story. The ability to succeed in a relationship isn’t all about one specific trait any more than playing quarterback is about the ability to take a shotgun snap. But the point isn’t to describe all the factors that make a successful relationships – I’m not qualified to do that. The point is that no matter what factors those are, the process has to start as an introspective one. “How am I contributing to our problems? What can I do to get better?” You cannot collaborate by shifting blame.


In a classic experiment, subjects were shown a sequence of playing cards, each for a fraction of a second. They were asked to identify the cards. For four of the cards, there was complete agreement among all subjects. Everyone accurately picked out the seven of diamonds, say, or the nine of clubs. But on one card, opinions were divided. Some people saw a three of hearts. Some thought it was a three of spades. The reality? It was a three of hearts, but the numbers and the shapes were colored black rather than red. Some people noticed the shape and filtered their perception through that expectation: it didn’t even occur to them that the hearts were colored black. Others noticed the color, which in turn forced them to conclude that the shapes were spades. When faced with conflicting stimuli and the pressure of a time constraint, one factor dominates our perception and the other is pushed out of the way entirely.

In psychology, these failures fall under the set of cognitive biases called selective perception. Selective perception is the process by which we base conclusions on a small amount of available information and ignore what contradicts it. According to Sarah Mae Sincero, it is the process “in which a person only perceives what he desires to and sets aside or ignores other perceptions or viewpoints.” (The poet Anais Nin put it like this: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”) Selective perception is why, when the Packers play the Bears, Bears fans are convinced the Packers committed more penalties. And selective perception is why the Dallas Police Department arrested Randall Adams for the murder of Robert Wood. Harris was a likable kid with all kinds of evidence pointed at him. He was a black three of hearts. For the police and prosecution, seeing the shape was all they needed to know about the color.

Every person on the planet commits selective perception errors. The consequences of these are typically small: you disagree with someone about a pass interference call. If you step back and ask yourself, even occasionally, “Am I motivated to see this a certain way? What expectations or beliefs did I have before I had any reason to believe them? Would I see things differently if I didn’t have those motivations?” you might be able to protect yourself from making these mistakes when the stakes are much higher, whether those stakes are a criminal prosecution or a relationship.


Russell Wilson was a bit of conundrum for NFL scouts. Some scouts thought he was among the best quarterback prospects to ever enter the NFL draft. He had excelled at two different colleges – something that is virtually unheard of. Scouts had trouble pinpointing any negatives in his game. But at the same time, he is short: Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden said, “The only negative is his height.” Most teams want a quarterback who is at least 6’4, someone who can see over lineman and identify receivers down the field. Wilson is 5’11. Scouts ultimately decided that Wilson’s height overwhelmed his other traits. Wilson fell to the third round of the draft, going 75th overall. Those scouts were wrong. If the 2012 NFL draft were done over today, Wilson wouldn’t go any later than the 3rd choice.

One big error scouts – and casual observers – make before the NFL draft is they fundamentally misunderstand how to interpret Combine data. (If you don’t know, the Combine is where all prospective draftees go to get measured, timed, and quizzed so we can know how long their arms are, how fast they can sprint 40 yards, and how many feet of rope you can buy for $.40.) Everyone ends up focusing on the biggest, strongest, and fastest. But that isn’t the point of the combine. The point of the combine is to determine whether someone meets the minimum baseline for NFL success. A wide receiver that runs a 4.5 second 40-yard dash is probably fast enough. One who runs a 6.5 second 40-yard dash is not. Because they were so focused on the fact that Russell Wilson wasn’t as tall as, say, Jamarcus Russell, they missed the fact that he was tall enough. He met the baseline to play his position.

Michael Robinson is Wilson’s fullback in Seattle. One night after practice, Wilson had Robinson stay to work on every last, excruciating detail of the most basic passing route in the tree: the flat route. Wilson was not content until he felt he could consistently throw to the point that would allow Robinson to turn upfield without losing momentum. Wilson’s father told him, “The separation’s in the preparation.” It’s an aphorism he passed onto Robinson. There are other reasons Russell Wilson is fast becoming one of the league’s better quarterbacks. He plays for a coach that tailors the offense to his strengths. He has an excellent corps of receivers and one of the best running backs in the league. Ultimately, though, he works until he gets it right. He asks himself how he can be better, and then goes and makes himself better. Russell Wilson should never had lasted to the 75th pick in the draft. But even with how closely scouts watched him, all they could see was his height. It’s almost like they said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’s everything you’d want a quarterback to be. But did you see this guy? He’s six foot four.”


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